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A Design Thinking Roadmap for Process Improvement and Organizational Change

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Key Takeaways

  • Design thinking is a process to quickly discover problems, prioritize the top challenges that the organizational change effort needs to address, and create ideas for solutions.
  • A successful organizational change effort needs to connect the perspectives of the entire workforce at all levels (from the front-line workers to the executive leadership). 
  • Use an incremental design thinking approach to create a common vision for the change effort. Perform small targeted design thinking workshops with specific groups in the organization to understand the problems and potential solutions, and then have a large workshop with members of all segments of the organization to create solutions that work for the entire organization.
  • Support the design thinking approach with other techniques such as the Lean Startup Mission Model Canvas and Stakeholder Value Proposition Canvas to consolidate and visualize the information to make it easier for others to see the problem-solution mapping.
  • Turn recommendations into an action plan for change. Create a backlog of tasks that provide a clear implementation path of the change activities as a way to ensure the change effort does not stop after recommendations are provided.

The Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Engineering and Technology Directorate (ETD) is a key contributor to a cross-organizational proposal development process (in this article, referred as the proposal process), where the organization provides engineering concepts and cost estimates for new projects. The GSFC proposal process is one of many mechanisms used by the various NASA Centers to propose new science, engineering, and technology concepts to attain funding from the NASA headquarters to develop new technologies that advance the NASA mission.

As part of the proposal process, ETD designs feasible engineering concepts and develops cost estimates that are included in the proposals that are sent forward to compete for funding for implementation. Through the proposals, each NASA Center competes against proposals developed by private industry for the same science concepts, and they also compete against other science concept proposals developed by other NASA Centers. ETD’s engagement in the proposal process takes from 12 to 18 months, with multiple proposals being worked simultaneously at different stages of the process.

For years, the ETD organization faced the challenges of providing timely engineering support to the proposal process. This is a result of the constantly changing nature of the scientific and technology environment, competing ETD internal and GSFC priorities, the nature of its evolving workforce where people change jobs based on their career goals and the limited resources of the organization. For a long time, the organization felt like a victim of the process and believed they could not effect changes to improve the proposal process. Participation in the process was often perceived as a burden for some, and not something everyone enjoyed because of the low return on investment.

As a systems engineer working in the Department of Defense (DoD) for 18 years, I took a career broadening assignment to work at GSFC for one year, leading a change initiative for ETD in the context of the GSFC proposal process. The change initiative impacted over 1,200 employees and transformed the organization’s role in the GSFC proposal process. During that year, I had to find creative ways to understand the organization and the problem they wanted to improve, find solutions to problems, and provide feasible and high value recommendations that would significantly transform how the organization operated for many years. At the end of my one-year assignment, I provided valuable recommendations to the organization that improved their participation in the proposal process, and changed the dynamics in the organization, creating the foundation for a new organizational culture. 

In this article I will share the design thinking techniques I used to drive organizational change and process improvement, and to create an impact on the organization. 

The Need for Change

Proposals begin by principal investigators devising an idea for a new science concept. After months of maturing the science concept, the engineering (ETD) organization is called to provide feasible engineering concepts within the prescribed cost and technology constraints. Often the engineering organization was asked to provide engineering expertise too late in the process (i.e. six months before the proposal due date). Over time this approach became a burden on the organization. 

In order to support the proposal work, people had to manage multiple priorities at the same time. Engineers had to divide their time between working proposals and providing support to their regular engineering projects. 

On top of the engineering work that needed to be done, managers in the organization were constantly challenged by having to shuffle the limited resources they had to do the work to be able to meet the various timelines and priorities of the organization. This became more challenging given that some members of the engineering team did not want to work on the proposals, given that it involved months of hard work with a low proposal winning rate. In addition, since proposal work is competition-sensitive, knowledge was never shared between proposals or among proposal teams, which sometimes resulted in duplication of work and a lack of sharing of lessons learned amongst teams. By not having access to previous proposal work, teams could not reuse previous cost estimates or previous designs.

With the change initiative, ETD was looking for new ways of doing work to improve their ability to deliver robust engineering concepts for the proposals that could increase the proposal winning rate for GSFC. By increasing the proposal win rate, they could receive additional funding for development of new technology and new projects in the organization. 

Through the change initiative, the organization sought culture and process changes to improve the proposal process and the organization’s participation in the process. The change effort aimed to do an in-depth analysis of the proposal process from the perspective of the organization and provide recommendations to improve the organizations’ engagement in the proposal process. The in-depth analysis of the proposal process provided a holistic view of the organization’s participation in the proposal process, showing the various points of engagement in the proposal process, the multiple iterations and deliverables in support of their work, and the pain points and opportunities for improvement as perceived by the various ETD work roles in the proposal process.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a framework that provides a human-centered approach for problem-solving that provides a powerful set of techniques and tools for organizations to focus their attention on the most important problems that need to be solved1. Design thinking methods can be applied to any type of problem: technical, organizational, or process improvement, and the methods can be combined in a variety of ways to tailor the approach to the complexity of the challenge at hand. Design thinking provides a quick way for organizations to identify the problems that need to be solved, prioritize the most important problems, and design solutions that provide value to the organization. The focus of the design thinking approach is to identify solutions that are feasible, viable, and desirable.

By using design thinking, I quickly learned about the organization and the proposal process; created empathy with the organization, understood the intricacies of the proposal process and the problems the organization experienced, prioritized the most pressing problems that needed to be improved, and identified solutions of improvement with a notional implementation plan.

Figure 1 shows the various design thinking techniques (shown in boxes) I used in my roadmap for organizational change. 

Figure 1. Design Thinking Framework

At the beginning of my assignment, my initial approach was to gather the information using interviews and derive recommendations for improvement from the interview data. Interviews were a great way to understand the problem space, but they only touched the surface of the potential solutions. After spending three months interviewing 27 stakeholders in the organization, I was asked to include 25 more people in the change effort. At that point, I realized that the interview approach was not going to scale and that I needed another method to quickly gather the information and make progress and be able to provide recommendations to the organization. Moreover, by being an external stakeholder in the organization, I did not have established credibility in the organization to tell the organization what needed to be changed or how to change it. Therefore, I decided to use design thinking workshops as a method to guide the organization to understand the problems and ideate solutions that would work for them. With this approach, the organization embraced the solutions because they designed them, rather than being designed by someone who was not part of the organization.

Applying Design Thinking to Engage People into Change

Figure 2 shows the design thinking process I used to engage the organization into change and guide them through the process of sharing a common understanding of the problems to be solved and creating ideas for solutions for improvement.

Figure 2 Design Thinking Process Used throughout the Experience

1. Structured Interviews

Structured interviews were the first step to engage people in the organization into the change initiative. Each interview session lasted two hours. I engaged the members of the management team and learned their perspective on the proposal process for the various work roles they performed. Questions were tailored to the organization and the proposal process, and addressed the following five categories: stakeholder role, problem discovery (i.e. pains), problem validation, opportunity discovery (i.e. gains), and opportunity validation.

The structured interviews provided a safe environment for people to share their candid opinion on the process and potential ideas for improvement, and provided an opportunity to build trust with the key stakeholders in the organization. During the observation phase of the change effort, I used the interviews as a way to get to know the people in the organization, learn about the process, and the problems and potential solutions for improvement. However, although stakeholders had a good grasp on the problems, their ideas for solutions were vague, and the interviews did not go into depth on what the solutions would look like or what was needed to implement them. Therefore, I used the ideas for solutions to look for common themes, to develop design thinking workshops.

Being an external stakeholder (i.e. not being part of NASA) had a double effect on the organization: I was not perceived as a threat since I was not part of the proposal process or the organization, and it created excitement for change because finally someone was fully dedicated to improving the proposal process. I conducted a total of 27 interviews within a three-month timeframe.

As part of the observation part of the process, I leveraged the practices from Lean Startup to capture the findings from the interviews and provide a visualization of the problem-solution fit:

a. Stakeholder Value Proposition Canvas

The Stakeholder Value Proposition Canvas (Figure 3) was used to capture the information collected during the interviews for each of the management roles in the proposal process. The technique provided a visualization of the pains, gains, and opportunities for each of the ETD management roles in the proposal process, and provided a mapping of the pains and gains in the potential opportunities to improve the specific pain points and to capitalize on the gains. One value proposition canvas was created for each person interviewed. 

Figure 3. Value Proposition Canvas Template

b. Mission Model Canvas

After a thorough analysis of the interview data, I identified high-level themes for the common pain points in the proposal process: cost estimation, concept development, and planning/governance of the process. I used the Mission Model Canvas tool to frame each of the common themes and highlight the key components of each specific theme (i.e. concept development, cost estimation, and planning/governance of the proposal process).  The Mission Model Canvas captured who in ETD participated in each common theme, other partnering organizations, the value to ETD stakeholders if that particular area improved, and a notional idea of what organizations needed to be involved in the solution either as support or for decision-making. 

Figure 4. Mission Model Canvas Template

Figure 5 Mission Model Canvas and Stakeholder Value Proposition Canvas Relationship

An Incremental Approach to Create a Common Vision

After completing the interviews and gaining a good understanding of the proposal process, the organization, and the problem areas, I engaged the organization in a series of design thinking workshops to lead the organization to explore each problem area, prioritize the most urgent problems that needed to be fixed, and design potential solutions for improvement. 

The design thinking techniques were new in the ETD organization; therefore, I used an incremental approach (Figure 6) to slowly introduce the design thinking techniques in the organization and create a common vision for the future of ETD’s participation in the proposal process.

Figure 6 An Incremental Approach to Create a Common Vision

I started with a small (20 people) design thinking workshop to learn the perspective of the engineering team and guide them through the process of ideating solutions to improve their specific pain points. As a result of the first workshop, the engineering team created three concept posters of solutions that would improve the specific proposal process areas of concept development, cost estimation, and governance of the proposal process.

The information gathered during the workshop with the engineering team was shared with the management team so they could understand the challenges and potential solutions the engineering team identified. Then a design thinking workshop with the management team (10 people) was developed to gain their perspective in the three common challenge areas of the proposal process: concept development, cost estimation, and governance. Having previous knowledge of the engineering team’s challenges and solutions helped the management team focus their energy on creating ideas for solutions that would alleviate the pains experienced by both the engineering team and the management team. 

2. Problem Discovery

a. Stakeholder Mapping (15 mins)

The workshop started with an icebreaker activity called the stakeholder mapping. The stakeholder mapping method created the context in which to understand how the management and engineering team interacted with other people and organizations in the proposal process, and the exchange of information between organizations and people. With the stakeholder mapping technique, the teams quickly identified the social network of the proposal process which created the context for the remaining activities in the workshop. The stakeholder mapping captured the complexity and breadth of the interactions.

Figure 7 Results from the Stakeholder Mapping Method

b. Rose, Bud, Thorn (1 hour)

After setting people’s mindset and context for the workshop with the stakeholder mapping, the rose, bud and thorn method was used to identify the positive (i.e. roses), negative (i.e. thorns), and potential opportunities (i.e. buds) of the proposal process. This was a very dynamic activity where people used stickies to quickly identify the positive, negative and potentials of the proposal process for each of the challenge areas of the proposal process (concept development, cost estimation, and governance). Items were color coded: roses were red, buds were blue, and thorns were yellow. With this technique, the management and engineering teams explored the topics of concept development, cost estimation, and governance of the proposal process, and highlighted the positive, negative, and opportunities of the proposal process from their perspective given their specific work roles and points of engagement in the proposal process.

c. Affinity Clustering (1 hour)

The next step was to use the affinity clustering method to group the positive, negative, and opportunities by their similarities to identify common themes. With the affinity clustering, the teams created a graphical representation of the issues, shared insights, and gained a collective understanding of the common themes and their relationship as it related to the dynamics of the proposal process and how the engineering organization interfaced with the process.

Figure 8 Results from the Rose, Bud, Thorn and Affinity Clustering Methods

d. “How Might We” Statements (30 mins)

The teams were led to explore in more detail each common theme that was identified with the affinity clustering method by using the “how might we” statements technique. The goal of this technique was to encourage the teams to broadly think about the problems that needed to be solved. With the “how might we” statements, the teams re-stated the various clusters in a prescriptive approach that converted the problem into a question. For example: how might we fix ____?, or how might we improve____? The teams embraced the “how might we” approach because it helped narrow down the scope of each problem area and focus on very specific aspects of the problems. The approach also gave them the opportunity to share different perspectives for solving each targeted problem area and start the conversations about potential ideas for solutions to improve each specific problem.

Figure 9 Example of How Might Statement Method

e. Visualize the Vote (5 mins)

Each group at the workshop identified the top "how might we” statements that they wanted to explore in more detail during the solution exploration phase of the workshop.

3. Solution Exploration

a. Creative Matrix (30 mins)

The solution exploration phase of the workshop started with the creative matrix. With this method, the organization generated as many ideas as possible for improvement of each of the selected “how might we” statements looking at the intersection of various categories? The rows on the matrix were the enabling categories, whereas the columns were related to the various phases of the proposal process lifecycle. Some examples of enabling categories used at the workshop were governance, leadership, technology, and process. Since we were dealing with a very complex and multi-dimensional problem, the creative matrix technique allowed the organization to explore as many ideas as possible in a quick timeframe without constraining the creative process of identifying ideas for solutions. The approach promoted communication and collaboration across the various groups to identify ideas for solutions where the various topics intersected.

Figure 10 Example of Creative Matrix

b. Impact-Difficulty Matrix (30 mins)

After ideas for solutions were identified using the creative matrix, the impact-benefit matrix was used to plot the relative importance and level of difficulty of implementing each solution. The impact-benefit matrix promoted deliberation between team members about the different ideas for solutions helped the organization prioritize potential solutions in a short timeframe, and develop a plan for action. The impact-benefit method is a 2x2 matrix where the x-axis shows the relative importance (low to high) of potential solutions, and the y-axis shows the difficulty (low to high) of implementation of the solution. 

Items in the low left quadrant are characterized as targeted or quick wins because they are the easiest to implement; the upper left quadrant are considered luxuries because they are difficult to implement and have low importance. Items in the lower right quadrant are considered high-value solutions since they yield a high impact and are easy to implement. Items on the right upper quadrant are considered strategic (long-term) solutions since they provide high value to the organization but they are difficult to implement. 

Figure 11 Impact-Benefit Matrix Template

By using the impact-difficulty matrix, the teams created a graphic that illustrated the relationships between the various potential solutions, thus creating a roadmap for the subsequent implementation of solutions.

Figure 12 Example of Impact-Difficulty Matrix

c. Storyboards (1 hr)

Following the impact-difficulty assessment for implementing the various solutions, the teams selected one high value solution from the matrix for storyboarding with the goal of showing the use case for that idea and the key elements and interactions that needed to occur in that new scenario. Storyboards created the context for the implementation of the idea and built a common understanding among stakeholders in the organization about how the solution would work.

Figure 13 Example of Storyboard

d. Concept Posters (1 hr)

Following the creation of storyboards, concept posters were created to illustrate the main points for the implementation of each selected high-value solution. Concept posters captured how the solution worked, the resources needed for the implementation of the solution, and a notional timeframe for its implementation, creating a vision and roadmap for the future of the organization in the context of the proposal process. 

Figure 14 Example of Concept Poster

The Results

Figure 15 summarizes the process and the results obtained using the design thinking roadmap for change.

As a result of the two small workshops with the management and engineering teams, a total of 41 “how might we” Statements, 210 ideas of solutions, and 6 concept posters were identified. All the data collected at the workshops were shared with the executive leadership team of the organization, since they are the entity that set the vision and strategy of the organization. 

Figure 15 Design Thinking Process Results

To ensure I met the organizational goals for the change initiative and delivered value to the organization, I engaged the executive leadership team and requested they prioritize all the “how might we” statements identified during the two small workshops. By knowing their priorities, I devised a large (50 people) design thinking workshop for the entire ETD organization with the purpose of blending the perspectives of the three teams: management, engineering, and executive leadership to create solutions that would work for the entire organization, and not for one segment of the organization.

The large ETD workshop was focused on the creation and prioritization of ideas for solutions. The large workshop yielded a total of 213 ideas for solutions, 60 prioritized ideas for solutions (categorized as high value, quick win, strategic or luxury), the selection of the top six high value solutions that the organization wanted to implement along with 6 storyboards and six concept posters for each solution that addressed each of the six “how might we” statements the executive leadership team identified before the workshop. 

Each prioritized idea for solutions was provided to the executive leadership team as a recommendation for improvement of the proposal process. Given the limited resources the organization had to implement the solutions, the leadership team combined ideas and selected the top three recommendations that would provide the most value to the organization when implemented. The organization embraced the top three recommendations since they addressed the three main problem areas of the proposal process: concept development, cost estimation, and planning/governance. Teams were formed for the implementation of each recommendation. Each team then created long term strategic plans and action plans that were documented in a backlog of tasks for the teams to realize the full implementation of each solution. Teams used the concepts from Agile development to break each task into subtasks and create spins and sprints to manage the work and keep the momentum going for the change initiative.

Long Term Impact

As a result of the change initiative, the organization implemented the following changes:

  • The management team identified earlier points of engagement in the proposal process where they could involve the engineering team during the pre-concept development phase so they could be more effective as part of their work. This resulted in changing some of the roles and responsibilities of the management team, and in the creation of new work roles, to take a more proactive approach in the earlier phases of the proposal process during science concept identification.
  • The organization identified new ways of sharing knowledge and lessons learned across proposals and teams, so they could reuse knowledge across proposals as a way of accelerating the concept development and cost estimation process.
  • The management and leadership teams created new ways of recognizing the engineering workforce in a more timely manner when working the proposals. This resulted in new types of incentives and awards for working proposals, even when the proposal did not win.

Today, the organization is working towards a digital engineering transformation effort, and they see this initial effort to create organization change and process improvement as the foundation for larger transformational changes that will impact beyond the ETD organization.

Overcoming Resistance throughout the Change Effort

There were multiple instances when I was faced with the challenge of resistance for change, and even for the use of the design thinking process. 

Initially, the organization was very comfortable with the use of interviews to gather information from the key stakeholders in the organization. However, when I proposed doing design thinking workshops as a way to engage representatives from all levels in the organization into the change effort, the leadership team immediately shut down the idea because they did not want to take people out of their work duties to dedicate a full day of work at the workshop. To overcome this challenge, I hosted multiple meetings with the leadership team where I explained the design thinking process and the benefits of using this approach. Afterwards, the management and leadership teams agreed on the idea. Upon completion of the first workshop with the engineering team, the workforce left the workshop full of energy and enthusiasm because they were making a difference in defining the future of the proposal process and the organization. By having a positive experience during the workshop, they spread the word in the organization and outside of ETD about the change effort. This helped gain support from the leadership and management teams for the subsequent workshops. The organization wanted to learn more about the application of design thinking because they saw its value and were thinking about potential use cases in their specific projects.

The design thinking process is all about the humans, their behaviors and interactions, and understanding the positive and negative things, which cause some people to be uncomfortable during the workshops. Being a technical organization, it was easy for people to talk about the process, but for some it was a sensitive point when they had to talk about their participation in the process. There was an instance of a person who considered the design thinking techniques too basic, and they decided to leave the workshop. In this case, there was nothing I could have done to change the person’s mindset. Instead, I offered the option of an interview as an alternate way for the person to provide input on the proposal process.

One aspect of resistance had to do with the culture of the organization. In preparation for the workshop with the management team, I wanted the engineering team to show and discuss their specific concept posters as a starting point for the workshop. However, the team was uncomfortable with the approach. In their organizational culture, they would never present a “draft” work product to the management or leadership team; and the concept posters were perceived as incomplete work products. This required that I change the approach. Instead, I displayed the concept posters and all the material from the engineering workshop on the walls hours before the management and leadership workshops to allow people to see the work products. In addition, I documented all the information from the workshops and made them available to the entire organization a week before the large ETD workshop to allow people to come up to speed on the various proposed solutions and start thinking about ideas for solutions. By using this approach, I validated the needs of the engineering team (because I did not put them in an uncomfortable situation), and the engineers felt more comfortable sharing their thoughts with the management and leadership teams. By providing transparency into the results of the interviews and of the small workshops prior to the large workshop, the other stakeholders in the organization came with an open mindset, thinking about what they could do, as managers of the process and leaders in the organization, to improve the participation of the engineers in the proposal process.

Recommendations for Using Design Thinking for Organizational Change 

  • When introducing new techniques in an organization, such as design thinking, it is best to do it in increments. This will provide the opportunity to gather frequent feedback and adjust the approach as needed along the way. Have small targeted workshops to slowly introduce the new techniques and to gather the perspectives of specific groups that later can be used to create a large cross-team design thinking workshop that will bring together all the perspectives of the various groups in the organization. By having people who participated in the small workshops participate in the large activity, they will help their peers in understanding the various techniques, which will create a positive experience.
  • Tailor the approach to the organization. Given the time constraints of the various teams to support the change effort, I made all the information available in the form of reports and presentations, so people could go back and review the material in preparation for the various workshops.
  • The best way to provide recommendations that bring value to the organization is by leading them through the process of understanding the challenges they have, and having them design their own potential ideas for solutions. The prioritized ideas from the impact-difficulty matrix become the recommendations for improvement.
  • Do not stop with recommendations. Create a backlog of strategic (long-term) and action (short-term) plans for the teams to have a clear path forward for the implementation of the recommendations, so the organization knows what success will look like. 
  • Get people excited for change by bringing a new perspective to the organization, showing new techniques and tools, and showing the benefit of the new approach. Provide on-the-job training to train change agents through the change effort.

About the Author

Lymari Castro is a systems engineer at the Department of Defense (DoD). In her 18 years at DoD, she has provided systems engineering expertise to a variety of complex missions and strategic initiatives. Castro holds a BS. in Physics, an MEng. in Engineering Physics, and an MEng. in Systems Engineering. She is certified in Scaled Agile Framework, Scrum at Scale, Large Scale Scrum, and Enterprise Business Agility Strategist. She is a member of the International Council of Systems Engineering (INCOSE), the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Agile Alliance, and the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA).  

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